The United Nations International Children’s Education Fund, UNICEF, defines a child as any person below the age of 18 and defines child marriage as “any formal marriage or informal union between a child and an adult or another child.”1 Child marriage is a persistent problem in many countries and it affects girls on a far larger scale than boys.
Girl-Child Marriage Statistics in Nigeria:
An estimate of 12 million girls marry each year, and the world has about 650 million females who married as children.2
Nigeria has the third highest absolute number of child brides in the world – 3,538,000
44% of girls in Nigeria are married before their 18th birthday and 18% are married before the age of 15.3
Factors Influencing Child Marriage in Nigeria
Culture and Religion: The practice is most common in the North West and North East of Nigeria, where 68% and 57% of women aged 20-49 were married before their 18th birthday.4 Furthermore, 48% of Hausa-Fulani girls are married by age 15, and 78% are married by age 18.5 This is because the Sharia law which widely governs the North reflects the fundamental religious and cultural beliefs and practices in the North.
According to Sharia law, an individual reaches adulthood at puberty and can be contracted into marriage. Additionally, cultural norms in northern Nigeria associate a girl’s virginity with family honour and suggest early marriages prevent sexual assault, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and family dishonour.6
Economic Factors: Child marriage in Nigeria is particularly common among Nigeria’s
poorest and rural households. Studies indicate that; child marriage is more than twice as likely to occur in rural areas and over three times more common among the poorest demographic, 80% of young women from the poorest families marry in childhood and in Nigeria child marriage is most widespread in the North, where the poverty rate is highest.7 Poor families in rural areas widely accept the practice as it reduces the financial burden of the family.
Conflicting Laws: The conflict of Sharia law, mostly practised in the North, and Federal Child Rights Act have made it almost impossible for the end of child marriage. The Nigerian Constitution recognizes Sharia law which is why Islamic and customary marriages are ubiquitous in the North. Therefore, until the states that practice Sharia law domesticate and implement the Child Rights Act, child marriage is protected from the provisions in the Act which illegalize child marriage by raising the minimum age of marriage to 18. Unfortunately, only a few of the thirty-six states have domesticated the Act and begun implementing it as law.
It must also be noted that other factors including, poor education, a high rate of out-of- school girls, increased apathy to school attendance and insecurity due to the Boko Haram insurgency encourage the practice of child marriage in North-eastern and North- western Nigeria, making it most prevalent in those states. Families resort to child marriage to protect girls from violence associated with these social ills.8
Consequence of Child Marriage
The consequences of child marriage are numerous. Victims are first and foremost, robbed of their childhood and then have their lives, health and welfare threatened.
Domestic Abuse and Violence: Girls who are married off before 18 years old, due to the gross power imbalance in such a marriage, are more likely to be exposed to domestic violence.
Poor Educational Outcomes: Victims of child marriage are less likely to complete educational training in school due to the new roles they would be forced to play as wives. Virtually no married girls are in school; only 2% of 15–19-year-old married girls are in school, compared to 69% of unmarried girls.9 Some 73% of married girls compared to 8% of unmarried girls received no schooling, and three out of four married girls cannot read at all.10 They have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, further straining the country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services.11
Reproductive Health Complications: Studies have found that child brides are at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and confronting reproductive challenges. Married girls have less knowledge about HIV than unmarried girls,12 thus girls aged 15– 24 are about twice as likely as boys the same age to be infected.13 Girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than those in their twenties, and girls under 18 are 60% more likely to lose their child.14 Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF) is reported to be one of the worst risks child brides bear in pregnancy as it leads to chronic medical problems like frequent infections, kidney disease and infertility.15
Psychological Impact: The practice can also isolate girls from family and friends and exclude them from participating in their communities, taking a heavy toll on their physical and psychological well-being.16
Eradicating Child Marriage
To eradicate child marriage in Nigeria, every person and community in the country must take a stand against it together. There are various means to be employed in tackling this issue and they include:
raising awareness of the impact of early marriage and the human rights abuse it constitutes,
encouraging state-level authorities to adopt the federal law that establishes 18 years as the legal age of marriage for girls,
engaging communities through public campaigns, pledges, or incentive schemes,17
developing special social and health support structures for young, first-time mothers and encouraging governments and communities to commit to getting girls to school on time and to keeping them in school through the secondary level,18 and
developing social and economic programs for out-of-school girls, including
non-formal education programs